Tuesday 6th March, Fighting Talk Exhibition, 35 Chapel Walk, Sheffield

by Davin Watne and Dawn Woolley (Performed by Dawn Woolley and volunteer performers)

Set up like an unruly debate, the performance will ask: has feminism become a pursuit of freedom that is little more than a freedom to consume, and sexual empowerment that has been confined to a highly commodified from of self-objectification?

In ‘Empowerment/Sexism: Figuring Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary Advertising’ Rosalind Gill identifies different advertising constructions that use sexualisation and commodification to express a form of empowerment. She coined the term ‘midriff’ to refer to the generation of girls and young women in their teens and twenties in the 1990s. The ‘midriff’ is exemplified by Trevor Beattie’s 1994 Wonderbra campaign and the slogan ‘hello boys’. The advert caused controversy in the UK when first displayed, with some viewers claiming it was derogatory and others suggesting it had caused traffic accidents because it was distracting drivers. The advert was voted the ‘most successful campaign of all time’ in 2011 (http://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/hello-boys-voted-greatest-poster-ever-created/1063405#).

In the advert Eva Herzigova knowingly and humorously addresses the viewer; she knows she is desired and flaunts her attractive body as a source of power. Gill writes that ‘today women are presented as active, desiring sexual subjects who choose to present themselves in a seemingly objectified manner because it suits their (implicitly ‘liberated’) interests to do so’. Liberation becomes a ‘new form of tyranny, an obligation to be sexual in a highly specific kind of way’. She continues: ‘Not only are women objectified (as they were before), but through sexual subjectification in midriff advertising they must also now understand their own objectification as pleasurable and self-chosen […] women are endowed with the status of active subjecthood so that they can ‘choose’ to become sex objects’.

Adverts use sexual subjectification to promote commodities that Wolfgang Haug, a Marxist theorist who coined the term commodity aestheticism, calls ‘goddess-packaging’. He says these products and procedures result in a beauty regime that ‘serves as a glittering straitjacket, a glossy recompense for subjection and degradation to a second-rate existence. Furthermore, maintaining the packaging is not only expensive but it keeps one occupied.’ (Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality and Advertising in Capitalist Society, Social and Political Theory 1972). The freedom to consume becomes a pervasive form of oppression. Women are impelled to expend a great deal of time and energy to objectify (or sexually subjectify) themselves.

However, more recently, some feminists have argued that pleasure and power can be derived from objectification and commodification. For example, Catherine Hakim says that women are endowed with greater erotic capital than men, and should use it to gain power. The ‘glittering straightjacket’ might actually be transformed into a glittering salary. Hakim says that patriarchal societies deem erotic capital to be less valuable than other forms of capital because women possess it in greater abundance than men. In this argument, feminists should try to change the values that society champions rather than discouraging women from sexualised, objectifying behaviour.

Other feminists argue that the object / subject structure of power is outmoded and needs to be critically reassessed. In Overcoming Objectification: A Carnal Ethics Ann Cahill says that if objectification is automatically wrong, there is no possibility of ‘sexuality without shame, desire without degradation’. This notion of objectification demonises women for being sexual subjects and also risks replacing the highly sexualised female stereotype of the 90s with an earlier stereotype that characterises women as lacking desire. Cahill says that it is when women are ‘derivatized’ and not when they are objectified that disempowerment occurs. She says derivatization occurs when women ‘are encouraged, and in some cases required, to take on identities that are reducible to male heterosexual desires.’  Therefore, the object / subject dichotomy requires a more nuanced reading, to allow a range of expressions of female sexual identity to be interpreted. Some instances of objectification are reductive and subordinate (derivatized) and others are expressions of an individual’s personal sexual identity and desire. The Wonderbra advert may be an empowering image of sexual subjectification in which the individual chooses to be objectified because she enjoys it. However, if this form of objectification is the only expression of female sexuality in adverts it is derivative.
To expose the complexities of this debate performers will be asked to pick a side. Beginning with extracts from One Dimensional Women by Nina Power and Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital by Catherine Hakim they will be asked to present their own argument for or against the freedom of objectification and the power to consume.